"Boxing is like jazz. The better it is, the less people appreciate it."
In the wake of Floyd Mayweather's unerring dissection of Mexico's new 'great white hope' Saul Alvarez on September 14, the above quote by George Foreman appears to be ringing as true as ever. While boxing purists have long since fawned over Mayweather’s peerless, elusive skills, in many ways it is these same skills that have also alienated him from casual "fans".
Viewers that fall into this bracket have long since been primarily drawn to fighters who put their bodies on the line first and ask questions later. For all his achievements, Mayweather just doesn’t fit that bill. Rather than commit to countless give-and-take exchanges with athletes to whom he is often conceding size, strength and youth, his game has always been to render these factors an irrelevance. In a boxing sense, he swims without getting wet.
The Alvarez fight proved in many ways to be typical of the Mayweather blueprint in this regard, focusing not only on his invariable punctuation of Canelo’s offensive spurts with counter combinations, but also the fact that when the wily American launched his own attacks, he was practically in a different postcode by the time the young Mexican had a chance to rally back. It is this peerless blend of precision punching and evasive defence which has seen certain experts of the fight-game pedestal Mayweather as the greatest of all time.
Indeed, at 36, he continues to belie his years by showing the same unyielding ambition that he first brought to the table in the mid-nineties, ambition which saw him obliterate five weight classes on his way to the pound-for-pound mountaintop. In spite of this, however, Mayweather’s so-called ‘boring’ style has been presented by ill-informed, yet often vocal, naysayers as the very antithesis of entertainment.
As result, those in the mainstream rarely give him his just due, omitting him from conversations about the all-time greats of the sport in favour of fellow welterweight and middleweight contenders like Sugar Ray Robinson and Henry Armstrong. While revisionism can be the bane of sports debate across the board, followers of boxing are among the most guilty in this regard, regularly preferring to revel in the past glories of bygone eras instead of relishing what they have in the present.
Although fighters such as Robinson and Armstrong are well worth their places atop the pantheon of elite boxers, nostalgia has played a significant part in exaggerating the gap in quality between themselves and the fighters of today. That is, if indeed such a gap even exists. For instance, one stick that is used to beat Mayweather is his supposedly low knockout percentage.
In the wake of last weekend’s points victory, his tally of 26 professional stoppages remains unchanged, a total which accounts for 57.7% of his 45 career triumphs. With this in mind, it is interesting to note that Armstrong, nicknamed ‘Homicide Hank’ due to his seemingly all-or-nothing style, achieved ‘only’ a 55.8% stoppage rate during his 14-year career.
Likewise, Robinson, widely considered to be the greatest fighter that ever lived, also retired with a lower knockout quotient (54%) than Mayweather. As well as his conservative style inside the ring, 'Money May' has also been vilified for how he conducts himself outside of it. Granted, his pre-fight ‘trash talk’ can be deemed to have cut a little close to the bone on occasion, but the implication of this criticism is that the top boxers of previous generations were somehow above this sort of hype and bravado during their time in the sport.
This, of course, again feeds into the revisionist notion that ‘everything was better back then’. Having already compared Mayweather to greats like Robinson and Armstrong in terms of ring ability, interesting comparisons can also be drawn between his own public profile and those of mainstream icons such as Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson. Although Ali is rightly remembered as a cultural and sporting trailblazer who dragged boxing back into the public consciousness, the less appealing sides of his character are often overlooked as a result.
For instance, while his pre-fight theatrics and soundbites are often glorified, it is important to remember that they sometimes tended to border less on the witty and more on the disrespectful. Ali described the late Joe Frazier, Olympic gold medallist and undisputed world heavyweight champion, as "too dumb to be champion." Ahead of his first fight with Sonny Liston, he drove to then champion’s home in Denver at 3:00am, with the press in tow, shouting "Come on out of there. I'm gonna whip you now like your Daddy did”.
If this behaviour is worthy of being described by Liston's biographer Paul Gallender as "the most brilliant fight strategy in boxing history”, why then has Mayweather’s career been overrun by criticisms of his comparatively mild behaviour in the lead-up to fights? With all this negative coverage of Mayweather’s personal life, it’s also easy to forget that idols like Ali and Tyson weren’t exactly altar boys during their time at the top either.
While Mayweather’s two-month spell in Clark County Detention Centre for domestic abuse in 2012 has been rightly condemned, Tyson’s three-year jail stint for rape during the 1990’s is these days merely an afterthought when talking about his decorated career. Likewise, Ali’s previous alignment with the Nation of Islam, a religious cult that labelled the white race ‘the devilish perpetrators of racial genocide’, seems to have become less and less of a mark against him with each passing year.
Why the double standards? Although Mayweather continues to dazzle in the ring, smashing box office records and standing tall as the highest-paid athlete in the world at a time when boxing is supposedly at its lowest ebb, this undefeated, self-made star from Grand Rapids is likely to be cast as boxing's antihero for some time yet. While sport is now more readily available than ever, and Mayweather’s artful magnificence is there for all to see, sadly it will once again be left to future generations to truly give the standout boxing phenomenon of today the mainstream recognition he deserves.
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